Eye on Special Teams

CLEMSON - The fate of a season can often come down to the swing of a leg. Need proof? Look back to last season and judge for yourself.

Last year's 8-5 record for the Clemson football could be described as bittersweet at best.

A 7-1 start which featured nationally televised wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech ended in disappointment after the Tigers lost four out of five games down the stretch, including what could best be described as an "uncomfortable" setback to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.

As a result of this late season plunge, much was made about the Tigers' inability to adjust on offense.

The running lanes for James Davis and C.J. Spiller that were at the beginning of the year, seemed nonexistent at times in the second half season. In addition, the downfield passing game virtually disappeared.

While some would argue it's easy to watch film and diagnose the Tigers' issues on both sides of the ball during that disaterous stretch, it is also important to point out that things could have been dramatically different without a single change on either side of the ball.

How is that possible, you ask?

Special teams.

A blocked extra point at Boston College and a missed field goal against South Carolina were costly in both losses. One could even argue a lack of confidence in special teams against Maryland contributed to a one-point loss in that game as well. And don't forget about the bowl game, where Clemson failed to convert on two field goals and two extra points.

Making it even more painful is the fact that a win against either Boston College or Maryland, both of which were one-point losses, would have put Clemson in the ACC Championship game.

While those games weren't solely lost on special teams, it's easy to see that improvement in that arena should help the Tigers chances exponentially in 2007.

Leading the way for the Tigers this year, at least headed into the start of fall practice, is kicker Mark Buccholz. The Clemson soccer player-turned-kicker beat out redshirt freshman Richard Jackson to take the place of Jad Dean, who is gone after using up his four years of eligibility.

Buchholz looks to handle kickoffs, extra points and field goals this season.

"You can say I'm excited about it," said Buchholz. "It's like second nature to me. I've been doing it every day because I've been swinging my leg in the same motion on the soccer field so I feel like that gives me advantage over a lot of kickers around the country."

Despite suffering a strained MCL through the later part of spring practice, Buchholz claims he will have range up to 60 yards later this fall. He showed his leg strength several times this spring, including connecting on a 52-yarder against the wind during the final scrimmage before the Orange and White game.

"I feel like I can go back to 60 when I'm 100%," he said. "This spring I thought I did some things to prove what I can do, including that 52 yarder against the wind."

With the Tigers unable to find a specialist with enough leg strength to consistently kick the ball into the endzone last year, Clemson's special teams turned into more of a liability than anything else.

This year, in addition to more length and accuracy with his field goals, Buchholz was also more consistent with his kickoffs during the spring. The combination of those skills led head coach Tommy Bowden to say he'll put Buchholz on full scholarship later this fall.

"The ball jumps off a little more vertical off his foot," said Bowden. "He's older. If you ever stand up next to him he's a pretty thick guy. If you ever seen his legs he looks like a linebacker. He's on a heavy heavy soccer scholarship right now but once he kicks once for us he'll be on scholarship. So yeah, he'll go on scholarship."

And even though Bowden hinted after the spring game that Buchholz will continue to battle Jackson for the starting spot, the competition can only be a good.

Dean, who went through his three-year career virtually unchallenged, peaked during his junior season before tailing off last year.

With Buchholz and Jackson battling it out, each kicker figures to put his best foot forward, so to speak, each time he steps into the spotlight.

And hopefully, that battle on the practice fields will translate into more consistent play from Clemson's special teams on game day.

After all, if the Tigers have a realistic goals of reaching their first ever ACC Championship game, it has to.

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